My wife has a saying: “Too many runs.” Those are the games in which your team jumps out to a big early lead. As a fan, you get cocky. This is easy. We’re crushing them.
Faltering at that point doesn’t happen often, but still, “too many runs” should be a warning. (My wife knows — she’s from Cleveland.) For whatever reason, your team can’t hold the big lead. As Hemingway once described going bankrupt, it happens gradually, then suddenly.
The next thing you know, your team has endured a terrible loss.
The Falcons had too many runs.
They were up 21-3 at halftime, then 28-3 midway through the third quarter. Arthur Blank was dancing in the owner’s box. Local sportswriters were burnishing their prose. Then a fumble, poor play-calling (why not three running plays when you’re in field goal range with a chance to put the game away?), a sack, a holding call, an amazing catch … and the lead had slipped away. The Patriots won in overtime.
I thought of Jim Leyritz.
On October 23, 1996, the Atlanta Braves were playing the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the World Series. The Braves were the defending world champions and had blistered the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS after being down three games to one. They quickly won the first two games of the World Series in New York and, though they dropped Game 3 in Atlanta, had jumped out to a 6-0 lead after five innings of Game 4. Fourth starter Denny Neagle was holding the Yanks and, if the Braves won, they would be up 3-1 with the Cy Young lineup of Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine to come.
The Yankees were, frankly, lucky to be there. If it weren’t for Jeffrey Maier’s interference on a ball hit to outfielder Tony Tarasco in the ALCS, who knows if they would have even made it to the Series? The team that would dominate the late ’90s was coming together, but still featured a number of spare parts.
One of those spare parts changed the direction of the series.
The Yankees managed to scrape back three runs and were down 6-3. Then, in the top of the eighth, the Yankees started a rally with a swinging bunt single, another single, then a sure double-play ball that ended up a forceout.
Up came Leyritz, a backup catcher with some dangerous pop in his bat, against Braves closer Mark Wohlers.
Inexplicably, Wohlers — who had one of the best fastballs in the game — threw Leyritz a slider on a 2-2 count. Leyritz parked it over the fence for a three-run shot, and just like that, the game was tied. The Yankees won in extra innings, and won the Series a few days later.
It changed everything.
The Braves, who were threatening to be a dynasty, have been back to the Series just once since (and were clobbered by the Yanks). The Yankees, on the other hand, became the best team in baseball, winning three more World Championships in the next four years.
So the Falcons’ loss was heartbreaking. (And I’m not even an NFL fan.) They were going to beat the imperious Pats. Moreover, this city, usually a town of fair-weather fans, had become enthusiastic in a way I hadn’t seen since the Braves’ pennant wins of the early ’90s.
I don’t know where the loss fits in on Bill Simmons’ “Levels of Losing,” but my guess is it’s way, way up there. (Don’t get smug, Bill: Remember Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner.)
It’s hard to capture this lightning more than once.
Now, you never know. The Falcons may shake this off and get back to the Super Bowl next year. But it’s hard to stay on top. You may be hit with injuries, bad luck, bad chemistry. Even the Patriots, the model of a team that keeps retooling itself, have lost their share of conference championships along with their big game wins.
So it hurts. Atlanta has won one major league championship in a half-century, the Braves’ 1995 World Series. The city’s teams have lost in some improbable ways, but this one … whew. An Atlanta columnist probably put it best: They blew the most Atlanta game ever.
All credit to Tom Brady, the magnet-fingered Julian Edelman and the Patriots, but: Too many runs.
And me? I have to detox in another way this week. Let’s just call it #toomanybrownies.